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Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities. She has published her work in One Story and The New York Times. She lives in New York City.
Exclusive Essay: Tania James on Sisterhood and Atlas of Unknowns
This book is primarily about sisters, a subject I know something about, as I have two, an older and a younger. For a lengthy stretch of childhood, the Older and I attended the Harold Roberts School of Dance, where we were packaged as a tap duet, and while other groups boasted sexy titles--The Jazzettes, for example, or Spice--my sister and I bore a name as dull and durable as our school shoes. We were simply, lamely, The James Sisters.
The James Sisters began their tenure at the ages of 7 and 9. I spent many of those youngest years as a pudgy counterpart to the Older (or, you could say, she was my lanky counterpart), and the visual effect, in pictures, evokes Abbott and Costello, or Cee-lo and Dangermouse, but in leotards and feathers. We were, however, serious about tap dance. Several times a week, we spun, flapped, and travel-backed across a linoleum patch of floor in our basement, smacking into walls, smiling blindly. Inevitably, the practice would end in a fight, and the Older would storm away and flop into a nearby armchair while I massaged my blisters and fantasized about a tapless adulthood.
I think that the Older resented being lumped with me, moreso than I did. But we were also aware that there existed some sort of mysterious syncretism to the styles in which we danced, and the way we could, without the aid of music, fall into exactly the same rhythms and gestures. At our best, when we performed, our four shoes emitted the sounds of a single pair, which seemed a genetic asset that our competitors lacked. Only once did we each try to dance a solo piece, but neither of us turned out to be the Paul Simon we had presumed ourselves to be. We were two Garfunkels, and practicing alone was boring. So we continued with our duets and fights, repelled and drawn back again and again, for years.
My apologies if I have given the impression that this novel has anything to do with tap dance. It does not. But in the attempt to sort through the soup of influences that fed this story, a particular image--my sister and I dancing and fighting in a cold basement--floated to the surface. Of course, I can point to other influences, both literary and non-literary, ones whose connection to my novel I can better articulate, like the statue of a martyred saint holding his own head, or a Malayalam film star, or my grandmothers who perpetually wear white, or a few seconds of the documentary Sherman’s March, wherein a woman complains to the filmmaker about his constant filming: “Could you turn it off? This is important. This is not art, this is life!” And then there are the influences that have exercised their hold on my imagination in invisible ways, like the fear of facing the infinite dark of the audience, and the relief of taking my sister’s sweaty hand for a bow. I can’t say that my life is art, but life has offered a steady and generous stream from which to make it.
I loved this book, which I found very well written and emotionally complex and then came to the end which I found unsatisfiing. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Jane
So much hope is poured out for something unknown and unreachable, only to go back to the beginning to find everything.Published 6 months ago by L. Nolan
I bought these shoes just before leaving on a trip to Northern Ireland. I couldn't have been happier. Read morePublished on May 12, 2013 by Avid reader
"Atlas of Unknowns" had me engrossed from the very beginning. Tania James is and excellent writer. I highly recommend this book.Published on February 16, 2013 by Kariann
Atlas of the Unknowns is a story of two sisters Linno and Anju. It launches off with an accident with Linno burning her hand with fire crackers in their modest home in Kerala. Read morePublished on December 2, 2012 by Roopa Ramamoorthi
I loved this book; the writing is intelligent, witty, and visually stunning. Anyone who loves Indian culture or has a family will be drawn into the story of the sisters as they... Read morePublished on November 20, 2011 by V. A. Mann
My other two reviews on Amazon are largely negative. I picked up this book at the library as well. And that is where the similarity ends. Excellent book with memorable characters. Read morePublished on February 2, 2010 by A_Writer
My favorite things:
. Anju's culture shock in the curious world of New York City: "In gym, when someone passes her the basketball, Anju says, 'Thank you,' and... Read more
In Atlas of Unknowns, first time novelist Tania James, tells the funny and honest story of two sisters trying to find their places in this world amidst betrayal and haunting... Read morePublished on September 26, 2009 by Terri Lee-Johnson